a classic Haida sculptor, artist, and jewelsmith, Bill Reid was and remains one of Canada's most reknowned artists. Certainly no other modern Northwest Coast artist has received the acclaim he has, both in Canada and internationally. Reid was known for his innovations in materials and techniques, and for restoring Haida myths while remaining true to the traditional design principles established by those before him.
Bill Reid was born in Victoria, British Columbia to a German-Scots-American father and a Haida mother. In his early years he was completely unaware of his Haida ancestry, but through his life the Haida in him grew in proportion, until he became the single most prominant figure in the renaissance of Haida culture in the 20th century.
At 23, after learning of his heritage through Haida designs worn by his aunt (his mother completely hid her heritage), he visited his mother's home in Skidigate, on the Queen Charlotte Islands. There he met his maternal grandfather, Charles Gladstone. From Gladstone and other elders in the community, he learned what little was remembered of Haida tradition. Gladstone had been a carver of argillite and silver, a tradition he learned from his uncle, Charles Edenshaw, the great 19th century Haida sculptor.
After completing high school, Reid became a radio announcer for the CBC. This work took him to Toronto, where he enrolled in a jewellery-making course at Ryerson Insitute of Technology. After completing this, he apprenticed himself at the Platinum Art Company in Toronto.
In 1951, Reid moved home, to Vancouver, and set up a jewellery workshop which he ran between shifts at the CBC. Here his interest in Haida art was restored. He quickly began to apply the European jewellery-making techniques he had been taught to Haida patterns. After studying several hundred pieces carved by Edenshaw, his culture-hero, and came to understand some of the fundamentals of the language of Haida art.
Reid began to carve totem poles as a result of a project at the University of British Columbia. This eventually led to his leaving the CBC and applying himself full-time to the art. He never looked back, applying himself to everything - copies of old Haida works, new totem poles, pen and paper art, canoes, large carvings, small carvings, jewellery, silk-screen prints, bronze casting, and even in literature. He excelled in every area.
Reid received honourary degrees from many Canadian univerisities including Simon Fraser University, the Univeristy of Victoria, York University, the Univeristy of Western Ontario, Trent University, the University of Toronto, and the University of British Columbia. He has received many awards, including the Canada Council's Molson Prize for cultural achievement in 1976, the Diplome d'Honneur for Service to the Arts in 1979, a Ryerson Fellowship in 1985, the Bronfman Award for Excellence in Crafts in 1986 and the Royal Bank Award for Outstanding Canadian Achievement in 1990. In addition, he was made a Canadian Living National Treasure.
Reid battled Parkinson's disease for many years before his death, on March 13, 1998, but continued to be a productive artist in his own right, and an excellent teacher of the art he had rediscovered. His ashes were scattered at Tanu, his grandmother's home village, now deserted, but once a great center of Haida art.
If the Raven created the Haida nation in the beginning, it is said, Reid has recreated it in the 20th century. Reid's revival of traditional Haida art, an accomplishment remarkable enough in itself, was a pebble in the pool, engendering widening circles of consequence. The renaissance in their art fostered a revitalization of their culture in general and contributed to the discovery of a new political will among the Haida of the Queen Charlottes.
Richard Wright, "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: La renaissance de l'art haida," Enroute, March 1991, p.88.
Reid Eulogy: http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/reid/reid01e.html
Royal BC Museum:
Native Online: http://rbcm1.rbcm.gov.bc.ca/hhistory/billreid.html
CBC Infoculture: http://www.infoculture.cbc.ca/archives/heritage/heritage_09292000_billreidtotem.phtml
Order of BC Biography: http://www.protocol.gov.bc.ca/protocol/prgs/obc/1994/1994_BReid.htm